I managed to get a copy of The Priests of Ancient Egypt by Serge Sauneron, and I finally got around to reading it. This book is considered a staple for Kemetics in many circles, and it doesn’t disappoint. This book goes far more in-depth into the priesthood of AE than almost any other book that I have read so far.
The book starts off discussing the generalized idea about what priests are and do. Sauneron shows us that while many people have an ideal about what priests were like (morally speaking) there were examples of priests who were less than savoury in their dealings. I would guess he does this to break any romanticism we have with the notion of being a priest. Priests were people just like us- and they were fallible as we are now.
Sauneron also discusses the basics of temple ritual, what a priest’s day might entail while in the temple. Most of this was not entirely new to me, but it was still interesting to read another perspective on it. After reading this, it really does validate a lot of what I’ve read in Reidy’s book. One confirms, in many ways, the other. He also goes into detail about different areas priests would have studied. He made a point to mention that each priest within the temple would have had a specialty. There was rarely a priest who knew EVERYTHING. Usually, you had someone who read stuff. Someone who oversaw just the offerings. Someone who spent their day making the linen and clothes for the icon. Someone who was there to deem if an animal was pure enough to be sacrificed to the god. Someone who knew the music that the god liked… etc. I think this is an important concept for modern Kemetics to consider, since it seems like we all have to know everything about everything in order to get somewhere. He also gave a generalized history of AE and how the priesthood could have played a role in it. It was interesting to see his ideas about how the Ramessides were trying to placate the priests of Amun while trying to promote their own god- Set. I’ve never seen anyone really discuss whether the 19th dynasty had problems with the temple of Amun or not. So the concept was interesting to consider.
I liked learning little facts that I’ve seen asked around the forums, yet never knew answers to. For example, Sauneron does mention that there was likely some type of initiation ritual for new priests. He says not a lot of information is known, but that something happened to transition them from outside to inside. In the case of higher priests appointed by the King, they would receive a ring and ceremonial staff, which I thought was interesting to know.
I also found out that there was mandatory ‘rules’ for animals that were butchered for the temple. Usually, related to markings (or lack thereof) – the beast had to be deemed pure in order for it to be served to the gods. I wonder how the Netjer feel about the types of meat we are serving them now 😛
Apparently each nome of Egypt kept some sort of master list relating to what grew there, the mythologies of the area, common offerings, and a whole slew of other things. I would love to get my hand of a whole lot of these. Imagine the things we could learn.
I also found out that in the typical inner sanctuary of the temple, there would be a kar shrine, the boat, and usually a table- and that offerings were left outside of the kar shrine, on the table. I had thought that perhaps the offerings went in the shrine itself, so it’s good to have this cleared up. I guess for most temples, the shrine was sealed up after the morning ritual, and wasn’t opened the rest of the day. Which I was unaware of as well. I also found out that for some temples, there were lesser and greater morning rituals. Every 5 days or so, there would be a more involved morning rite that involved the changing of the clothes for the god, etc. But that on the lesser days, just the four strips of linen were swapped out.
He also confirmed that Open statues had their joo-joo renewed once per year. I would guess through another Opening of the Mouth rite.
Overall, the book had some interesting stuff to it. I learned a few new things and it reinforced a lot of what I have already read. Here are a few excerpts from the book I placed in my FB feed:
A priest is any man who, through bodily purification, puts himself in the state of physical purity necessary to approach the holy place, or to touch any objects or dishes of food consecrated to the god.
Maat is the aspect of the world that the gods have chosen, it is the universal order as they established it from its basic constituent elements, such as the course of the starts and the succession of days, down to the humblest of its manifestations” the harmony of the living, their religious piety; it is the cosmic balance, and the regular recurrence of the seasonal phenomena; it is also the respect for the earthly order set up by the gods – truth, and justice.
The Egyptians distinguished in the sky, beyond the sun and the moon, the stars which never rest- our planets: Mercury, Venus (the star of the evening and the morning), Mars (the red Horus), Jupiter (the glittering star), and Saturn (Horus the bull).
I think the biggest complaint I have about this book is that he cites late sources a lot. It seems like the majority of his information comes from Greek writers. While I know that it’s possible that this was his only major resource to pull from, I would certainly enjoy to hear more about priests from the Egyptians themselves- not outsiders who came to Egypt at the very end of her life.
All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the priesthood of Egypt, and whoever might be interested in creating a priestly role for themselves (or taking on such a role) in the modern era. I think by looking back at how the ancients did it, it can create a lot of ideas about how we can approach the concept today, and translate it into something that works in this time and place. I also feel this book does a good job at clearing up some of the misconceptions one might have about what bring a priest in AE was about.
See this book review over on Pagan Book Review!